Lewis Clive: The Red Blue

Lewis Clive, 1931.

Tim Koch writes:

I have not yet finished with the picture of the 1931 Oxford Crew that inspired my recent piece on ‘Oxford Bags’. Fourth from the left is the ‘6’ man, Lewis Clive, who seems slightly ‘out of step’ with the others. Perhaps he is standing a little forward of the group; he is upright with his arms folded across his chest while the others slouch a little with their hands in their pockets; the rest of the crew are in ‘blanket bags’ made from some coarse material while his well-tailored trousers are made from a finer cloth; unlike the others, he looks not into the camera but slightly to the side. It could be thought that this Old Etonian from a titled family was a typical member of the privileged group of young men who were at Oxford or Cambridge Universities between the two World Wars – but this was not the case.

Lewis Clive was born on 8 September 1910. His father had been a Conservative Member of Parliament between 1900 and 1906 and also Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Austen Chamberlain, the latter becoming the boy’s godfather. While at Eton, Clive unusually held two of the most prestigious posts in the school, that of Captain of the Oppidans (selected from the most academically distinguished non-scholarship boys) and Captain of Boats. Going up to Christ Church, Clive rowed at ‘6’ in the losing Oxford boats of 1930 and 1931 (this was the middle of the Cambridge run of thirteen victories in succession, 1924-1936) but had more rowing success on the wider scene.

In 1931 and 1932, he and Hugh ‘Jumbo’ Edwards (who were ‘6’ and ‘5’ respectively in the 1930 OUBC crew) won the Silver Goblets, the pairs event at Henley Royal Regatta. On the strength of their Henley wins, they were selected to represent Britain in the coxless pairs at the 1932 Olympic Regatta in Long Beach where they had a comfortable victory, beating New Zealand by two seconds and Poland by eight. According to sports-reference.com, Clive refused an invitation to join Leander – perhaps an indication of things to come.

The rowers who took part in the 1932 Olympic Regatta (click to enlarge). The countries represented are Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the United States, and Uruguay. I think Lewis Clive is on the front row, eighth from the right, probably between Jack Beresford and David Haig Thomas. Picture: Wikipedia.

So far, perhaps, so conventional. What marked Clive out were his later political views and actions. Some time after leaving Oxford with a second in law in 1932 he became an active member of the centre-left Labour Party.

Strangely, it seems that he was not radicalised while at university (indeed, in his time there, he was a member of the exclusive and reactionary Bullingdon Club). His Times obituary later noted that after graduation he worked as a banker ‘while his political ideas were yet uncertain…’ It continued, ‘His resolute single mindedness…. was accompanied by an eager search for constructive ideas in place of earlier prejudices…..’ It is true that it was not unknown, especially in the inter-war years, for privileged young men and women to embrace left-wing ideas. It is also true that at the time the British Labour Party was a ‘broad church’, which included everyone from liberal reformers to crypto-communists.

It would be easy to dismiss Clive as a ‘Champaign Socialist’. His background was Eton and Oxford, the Bullingdon and banking. Later he became a Labour Party member of the Council in the comfortable London Borough of Kensington and also a member of the Fabian Society. The Fabians advocated gradual rather that revolutionary change and its membership was almost entirely composed of upper middle class intellectuals. Early supporters included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Emmeline Pankhurst. Clive also expressed a desire to become a Member of Parliament.

Had Lewis Clive attempted to advance his political beliefs purely in debate at Kensington Town Hall or in the drawing rooms of polite society or over the dinner table at country house parties, we could be cynical about his political commitment. However in 1938 he did something that proved the sincerity of his beliefs – he volunteered to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Volunteers march to Victoria Station in London on their way to Barcelona to fight for the Republican forces. Those were the days when you wore a suit and tie on the way to war.

The civil war in Spain (July 1936 to April 1939) was ostensibly between the Republicans (who were loyal to the established elected government and were supported by the Soviet Union) and the Nationalists (who were ‘fascistic’ if not ‘fascist’ and who led a coup against the Second Spanish Republic, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy). The armies of both sides were bolstered by foreign volunteers, the International Brigades, from a claimed 53 countries (though the majority, figures vary between 32,000 and 40,000, went to fight for the Republicans). An uneasy mixture of communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists from all social classes (though predominantly working class) saw Spain as the opportunity to stop the spread of the ideology of Hitler and Mussolini. There was (and still is) a romantic appeal to the International Brigades. In his book A Moment of War (1991), volunteer Laurie Lee wrote:

I believe we shared something…… unique to us at that time – the chance to make one grand and uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith, which might never occur again…. few of us yet knew that we had come to a war of antique muskets and jamming machine-guns, to be led by brave but bewildered amateurs. But for the moment there were no half-truths and hesitations, we had found a new freedom, almost a new morality, and discovered a new Satan – fascism.

A romanticised image from the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which photojournalism came of age. Picture: http://radicalhistorynetwork.blogspot.co.uk

Two writers on the Spanish Civil War, Richard Baxell and Stuart Christie, confidently state that, at least by the time he got to Spain, Clive was a member of both the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and of the Labour Party, though Christie says that he was a ‘covert’ CP member. I am unsure about this. Certainly, in the early days of the CPGB, founded in 1920, dual membership was accepted by both sides (in 1922 an open member of the Communist Party was elected as a Labour Member of Parliament). By the late 1930s belonging to both would be more difficult. However, if it were true, it could have been part of Clive’s continuing political journey. Also, at the time many people flirted with communism simply as a response to the growth of fascism – the realities of Soviet Russia were as yet unknown.

Perhaps the most famous volunteer in Spain was George Orwell, the tall figure on the right. With characteristic cussedness, Orwell fought not with the International Brigades but with POUM, Spanish anti-Soviet Communists who were in alliance with the Anarchists. POUM were later persecuted by the pro-Soviet Communists, providing Orwell with inspiration for Animal Farm and 1984. Picture: http://georgeorwell.org/SpanishCivilWar.htm

Lewis joined the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade, mostly composed of volunteers from English speaking countries. There is a remarkable photographic collection relating to the 15th here. Some volunteers and their leaders were veterans of the 1914-1918 War but most, like Clive, had no military experience.

The first mention that I can find of Clive in Spain is on the website of another writer on the war, Lydia Syson. In March and April 1938, Republican forces in northern Spain were in retreat and were forced back over the Ebro, a deep, broad river with strong currents:

…. during the chaos and terror of the Retreats… John Longstaff had been the very last across the bridge at Mora de Ebro before it was blown up….. (he) never forgot the urgent cries of ‘Venga! Venga!’ as he sprinted to safety. Former Olympic rower Lewis Clive…… had swum across with one non-swimmer, and returned to rescue military equipment. Others were swept away by the current.

The Times obituary records that ‘Earlier in the campaign ……. (Clive) had a remarkable escape when, after an overwhelming advance of Italian tanks, he found himself cut off behind the enemy lines, but succeeded in crawling back to his own lines after 10 days of great privation’. Possibly this refers to an incident on 31 March 1938 when 650 men from the 15th Brigade marched into a column of Italian soldiers. Only 80 Brigaders made it back to their own lines.

Richard Baxell, noted this in a lecture in 2013:

(In the summer of 1938 the British Battalion was) training at Fontanella, a pretty village surrounded by rugged hills and mountains near the Catalonian village of Marsa….(they) were kept busy with ‘training, marching or rifle practice’ and ‘the procedures for crossing rivers’, while at night one of the volunteers who was a particularly strong swimmer (Lewis Clive) swam clandestinely across the Ebro River to reconnoitre the Nationalist positions.

With such feats it did not take Clive long to be made a company commander. On 25 July 1938, the battalion were part of a huge surprise offensive by the Republicans, attacking back across the Ebro River, a final desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war. Richard Baxell quotes veteran John Longstaff:

We got into rowing boats; everyone was silent and thinking about the fighting to come. The Spanish and International Brigaders had muffled even the oars….

I think that anyone who loves rowing will agree that, even with the threat of possible death looming, Clive could probably not have stopped himself thinking, however briefly, of the other times in his life that he had sat in a rowing boat, pulling an oar.

Crossing the Ebro. Picture: http://www.batallaebre.org/english/batallaebre.php

The British volunteers and others crossed the river and had some initial success but were stopped by ferocious aerial and artillery bombardment outside the town of Gandesa. The Nationalist defenders were in a good defensive position on Hill 481 outside of the town and attempts at attacking up the steep rise cost many lives – including that of Lewis Clive.

A website devoted to Irish volunteers in Spain has collected information about Clive’s death. It disproves a ‘barrack room rumour’ that he was killed by drunken ‘friendly fire’ and produces two eye witness accounts of his last few seconds.

An e-mail from José Ignacio García Muniozguren, who translated George Wheeler’s To Make The People Smile Again: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War (2003) into Spanish, quotes Wheeler who was next to Lewis when he was shot:

Lewis Clive re-appeared and asked about the activity in the fascist lines. It was a hot, sunny day and, as usual, my shirtsleeves were rolled up. At that moment I felt splashes on my left forearm, and glancing down, was astonished to see they were splashes of blood. Turning, I saw Lewis reel and fall. Someone below said ‘What a ghastly sight”. I slid down from my firing position and saw that the top of his head was severed completely…. This big, cheerful, and sincere man had performed his duties as Company Commander with distinction. Well-liked and respected in the battalion, this was a great loss to us all.

Manus O’Riordan responded with what his father, an Irish International Brigade veteran, told him on a return trip to Spain in 1988:

As we journeyed by car through the mountainous battlefields of the Ebro front, on the occasion of his first return visit to Catalunya in fifty years, my father unexpectedly opened up and spoke of his memories. He recalled being right beside Lewis Clive as they were under fire from the fascist lines. When a lull came in the firing, Clive stood up to get a better view. My father said he immediately thought ‘a bad commander’. This was no reflection on Clive’s courageous character and bravery, but rather a comment on the recklessness of such bravery in presenting himself in the open as such a soft target for the fascists. The thought had barely formed in my father’s head when Clive was shot…

Older British readers will remember Jack Jones, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union from 1968 to 1979. Here he talks about his experiences on Hill 481 and gives his overview of the Spanish Civil War:

The International Brigades were disbanded and left Spain at the end of 1938 and the Republicans surrendered in April 1939. Spain was to live under the semi-fascist rule of the Nationalist leader, Franco, until his death in 1975.

As far as I know, Clive was the only Blue or Henley winner to die in Spain. The only other Olympian that I know of is Irish boxer, Robert Hillard.

There is a view that the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, was in fact a part of the larger fight against tyranny, the Second World War. Nineteen Rowing Blues were killed between 1940 and 1945 including two from the 1931 Boat Race. The Oxford stroke, Holdsworth, died on active service with the Royal Air Force in 1942 and the Cambridge bow, Haig Thomas, fell on D-Day, 6 June 1944 while serving with the Commandos. Clive’s father, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Clive, had been killed in action in 1918, his older brother, Major Meysey George Dallas Clive, suffered the same fate in 1943.

Because few people nowadays agree with their political philosophies, volunteers such as Lewis Clive are often marginalised or dismissed, thought of as tools of the Soviets or romantic fools. However, these people realised long before the United States and free Europe, that the only way to stop fascism was by force. Richard Baxell quotes volunteer John Bassett:

(The 1930s were) a time of hope, when a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs.

The Times obituary concluded:

Lewis Clive’s many friends, whatever their political views, will not forget his inspiring courage, and will find some consolation in the knowledge that he died gallantly…. in what he was convinced was a critical struggle to save democracy for Spain and ultimately for Europe.


  1. Thank you Don. You may be interested in looking up the 'Abraham Lincoln Brigade', 2800 Americans who fought for the Republicans. Ninety were African-Americans, the brigades were not segregated. Only 2000 of these 'premature anti-fascists' lived to return to the US where they were all classed as communists and suffered the consequences.


  2. Dear Tim

    Excellent piece on Lewis Clive, I believe W Rust’s book on the Spanish Civil War mentions him. I had heard he declined membership of Leander.

    In your later paragraph do you include R Hope president of OUBC and winner of the Wingfield sculls in 1937 as a blue who was killed in WW2? I found a reference to his death in a book on the RAF published during WW2 mentions that he was Neville Chamberlain’s nephew and had his crew bale out of his stricken bomber while he stayed at the controls and made sure it didn’t crash into a local town.

    I have not followed this up with the archivist at Eton but wonder if anyone else can confirm the details?


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